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Military gives advice to communities losing bases

Staff Reporter

dave.williams@newtoncitizen.com

ATLANTA - During past military base closings, the Defense Department has focused primarily on helping communities losing bases survive the economic blow. But a four-day conference under way this week in Atlanta is aimed just as much at areas that will gain jobs from the latest round of base realignments and closures, including Fort Benning near Columbus and, to a far lesser extent, Albany's Marine Corps Logistics Base.

"That's such an important part of this round,'' said Philip Grone, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment. "It's important to put those communities in a position to plan for the future.''

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission nearly a year ago recommended closing four Georgia bases: Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Fort Gillem in Forest Park, the Naval Air Station Atlanta in Marietta and the Navy Supply Corps School in Athens.

Both President Bush and Congress signed off on those plans later in the year.

However, Georgia will be a net gainer of jobs in this round of BRAC primarily because of about 9,800 additional military and civilian positions coming to Fort Benning during the next five years.

MCLB-Albany will gain a relatively paltry 43 jobs, down from an original estimate of 150.

About 1,000 people are attending this week's conference, including military officials and political and business leaders from communities across the country either about to suffer an economic blow from the loss of military jobs or a growth spurt from a sudden influx of service personnel and their families.

On Wednesday, attendees interested in the growth portion of the equation heard success stories from two experts who helped manage earlier population explosions in and around Fort Drum, N.Y., and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Retired Col. Terry Roche, former commander at Fort Drum, said one strategy that paid off in rural upstate New York was developing a plan to scatter the additional housing that would be needed for the new headquarters of the Army's 10th Mountain Division in 10 communities across three counties.

"All the growth didn't come in one area,'' said Roche, who now serves as treasurer for the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization. "That helped ease some of the immediate transportation problems.''

Roche said decisions on where to build new schools then fell in line with where the houses were being built.

The need for new schools is a major concern in the Columbus area. Many of the additional soldiers to be stationed at Fort Benning are expected to arrive with school-age children in tow.

Indeed, growth in student enrollment generally is among the major concerns for any community whose base is undergoing expansion, said Patrick O'Brien, director of the Defense Department's Office of Economic Adjustment.

"There's a lot of anxiety,'' he said. "We're trying to work with each (school district) to come up with a plan to fund renovation and new construction.''

Leaders in communities surrounding forts Gillem and McPherson have the opposite problem, determining the most productive reuses for property about to be abandoned by the military.

Grone said the purpose of the conference is to help guide local planners to the best choices, not tell them what to do.

"We're not dictating particular solutions,'' he said. "This is a way to assure that they have the information they need for a seamless planning process.''